Giddens Unspun

Can anyone remind me why Anthony Giddens used to be a big deal in New Labour circles? Because if this is the best he can come up with

Gordon Brown has recently spoken of his plans for tough new laws to combat terrorism. His proposals have been met with hostility from civil liberties groups and the Labour left – just as many of Tony Blair’s innovations in this area were.

One can hardly catch one’s breath for the giddy pace at which Giddens opens his piece by spinning his agenda. Brown’s new laws are ‘tough’ – this is apparently the supreme virtue in law-making these days, never mind other qualities like ‘fair’ and ‘just’.

And why do they need to be ‘tough’? Because their purpose is to ‘combat terrorism’ – what was it that Hilary Benn was saying a while back about stepping away from the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’? Don’t you believe it for a minute. ‘Combat’ is an obvious military metaphor and the implied meaning of a phrase such as ‘combat terrorism’ is clear – terrorism is that which we are ‘at war’ with even if we may have taken the decision not to admit it openly, or more to the point to eschew a particular line of rhetorical phraseology because of its close association with a discredited public figure, George W Bush.

And the reaction to these ‘tough’ new laws? Hostile, of course (which imputes a largely personal motive) with this ‘hostility’ coming from ‘civil liberties groups and the Labour left’ – who’re obviously in cahoots in projecting such hostility.

But who is this ‘Labour left’? Labour is a centre-left political party, which would presumably mean that all of its members are the ‘Labour left’ as opposed to being the ‘Conservative right’.

Of course, what Giddens actually means is clear. The ‘Labour left’ in this case means the ‘Old Left’ or ‘Hard Left’, a rump of left-wing ideologues and hardened oppositionalist troublemakers and his juxtaposition of this phrase with ‘civil liberties groups’ is, consequently, a carefully constructed attempt to label these unspecified ‘civil liberties groups’ as belonging to or allied with the ‘Labour left’ bogeyman by association.

Finally, Giddens describes Blair’s policies as ‘innovations’, which, again, is far from being a neutral appelation in common usage. An innovation is merely something that is new, but in common usage the word is used to imply that the newness is somehow definitively better that that which which preceded it and which has now been replaced, regardless of whether there is evidence to support such a view.

In fact, the Blair government has been seen by some of the harsher critics as betraying the freedoms upon which British democracy is built. Who is in the right in this continuing controversy?

Blair/Brown, naturally. Giddens has made his position entirely clear in his first two heavily spun sentences which makes the question of ‘who is right?’ merely a rhetorical device. Giddens’ intent is not to answer that question in rational terms, it serves merely to set the scene for an Giddens to supply an explanation of why Blair and Brown and right and anyone who disagrees with them (and Giddens) is wrong.

I would suggest that one unacknowledged factor in this debate is risk.

Is it really? Or is this merely the vehicle by which you intend to demonstrate the self-presumed validity of your position on the premise that few other than statisticians and actuaries ever take the time to calculate risk in mathematical terms or fully understand the maths.

The choice of ‘risk’ as the ‘unacknowledged factor’ in this debate is far from being a politically neutral decision. What Giddens is relying on here is two things. First, that because risk is calculated and expressed in terms in terms of mathematical probabilities, this alone lends credence to his arguments because ‘numbers don’t lie’.

This is, of course, nonsense. Numbers themselves may not lie, but statistics do on a routine and regular basis because what matters is not just what the numbers are, but how and one what basis those numbers are interpreted.

Take, for example, the medical/health ‘scare stories’ one see reported in the press with monotonous regularity. We’re all familiar with them, the kind that tell us that engaging in behaviour X (smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fatty foods, etc.) increases one’s chances of Y (lung cancer, heart disease, any other nasty or debilitating illness) by Z times (or Z%). A quick look at the BBC’s health news section yields just such a story from yesterday:

Low-carb diet ‘cancer risk’ claim

Low-carbohydrate diets may increase the risk of people suffering bowel cancer, scientists have claimed.

Researchers from Aberdeen’s Rowett Research Institute believe there is a link between eating less carbohydrate and reducing cancer-fighting bacteria.

So a low-carb diet may increase the risk of contracting bowel cancer, allegedly, but by how much? What are the actual risks associated with such a diet?

The researchers said they found low-carbohydrate regimes could cause a four-fold reduction in the cancer-fighting bacteria.

Okay… but how does that affect my risk of contracting bowel cancer?

Prof Harry Flint, who led the research, said: “In the long run, it is possible that such diets could contribute to colorectal cancer.

“It is a preventable disease, and there is evidence that poor diet can increase your risk.”

He said it was likely the results would be the same in women.

So its possible that low-carb diets could contribute to colorectal cancer because cancer is a preventable disease and there is evidence that poor diet can increase your risk. Oh and its likely that results would be the same in women…

Anyone thinking what I’m thinking here? That Professor Flint’s answer amounts to ‘I’m fucked if I know but the research grant’s up for renewal, so we need to look like we’ve done something just to get next year’s cash?’

The article tells me nothing whatsoever about the personal risk I might face if I choose to adopt a low-carb diet, all it says is that a scientist who is very likely in need of research funding thinks there might be an increased risk but he can’t say for certain what that risk might be or if it even exists.

This is pretty much the standard pattern in such reporting – doing X increases the risk of Y by Z – but rarely if ever do such reports tell you the single most critical piece of information necessary to evaluation this increased risk – what your starting risk was in the first place. If the chance of Y happening is 1 in 3 and doing X doubles the chance of such an event to 2 in 3 then that’s a risk you’d do well take seriously, but if the chance is only 1 in 1 million, then doubling the chance of it happening is really not that big a deal – at that level of risk, one can perfectly justifiably take the view that one should carry on as normal and if you’re one of the two unlucky one’s out of a million, well that’s just because shit happens.

To clarify the issues, we would do well to unpack the implications of risk management more thoroughly. In the contemporary world, we are faced with a range of new risks whose assessment is difficult. It is quite easy to calculate recurrent risks. The risk that a car journey will result in the injury or death of the driver can be calculated with some precision, since there are many cases to go on. This is not the case with risks such as those posed by international terrorism, global warming, pandemics or global financial crises.

So what Giddens is saying, in effect, is that is that people are generally ignorant of the risks associated with unusual events, like international terrorism, because there is insufficient data to measure those risks reliably. But, hang on a second, the reason that there is so little data to go on is precisely because they are so unusual. Giddens is deploying circular logic – we can’t give an accurate assessment of what the risk of being killed in terrorist attack actually is because the risk is so small that we don;t have enough data to to calculate what the risk is.

What this tells us that, one way or another, the risk is very small – small enough, in fact, to look on the prospect of getting killed by in a terrorist attack as one of those unpredictable ‘shit happens’ events about which one could have done nothing in the first place.

By such an obvious inference is not going to stop Giddens.

Such risks have some special characteristics.

No. You don’t say?

First, it cannot be known in advance with certainty how great the risk really is.

True, but that’s only because the risk is so small that it provides insufficient data to calculate an accurate level of risk.

However. what one can do, to arrive at a calculable measurement of risk is postulate hypothetical scenarios in which an event occurs with sufficient frequency to allow one to make a measurement of probability, as shown in this article from Reason Magazine:

To try to calculate those odds [of dying in a terrorist attack] realistically, Michael Rothschild, a former business professor at the University of Wisconsin, worked out a couple of plausible scenarios. For example, he figured that if terrorists were to destroy entirely one of America’s 40,000 shopping malls per week, your chances of being there at the wrong time would be about one in one million or more. Rothschild also estimated that if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America’s 18,000 commercial flights per week that your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000.

Even if terrorists were able to pull off one attack per year on the scale of the 9/11 atrocity, that would mean your one-year risk would be one in 100,000 and your lifetime risk would be about one in 1300. (300,000,000 ÷ 3,000 = 100,000 ÷ 78 years = 1282)

Before getting to these calculations, the same article takes a quick run through the numbers for several, much more common/well known risks:

Your lifetime odds of dying of a particular cause are calculated by dividing the one-year odds by the life expectancy of a person born in that year. For example, in 2003 about 45,000 Americans died in motor accidents out of population of 291,000,000. So, according to the National Safety Council this means your one-year odds of dying in a car accident is about one out of 6500. Therefore your lifetime probability (6500 ÷ 78 years life expectancy) of dying in a motor accident are about one in 83.

What about your chances of dying in an airplane crash? A one-year risk of one in 400,000 and one in 5,000 lifetime risk. What about walking across the street? A one-year risk of one in 48,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 625. Drowning? A one-year risk of one in 88,000 and a one in 1100 lifetime risk. In a fire? About the same risk as drowning. Murder? A one-year risk of one in 16,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 210. What about falling? Essentially the same as being murdered. And the proverbial being struck by lightning? A one-year risk of one in 6.2 million and a lifetime risk of one in 80,000. And what is the risk that you will die of a catastrophic asteroid strike? In 1994, astronomers calculated that the chance was one in 20,000. However, as they’ve gathered more data on the orbits of near earth objects, the lifetime risk has been reduced to one in 200,000 or more.

So, given a hypothetical 9/11 scale attack on America occured every year, your risk of dying in terrorist attack would come out to be a bit less than that of you drowning or dying in a fire, just less than risk of dying while crossing the road, less than a fifth of the risk of being murdered by one of your fellow citizens and almost 16 times less than your chance of being killed in a car accident.

On those numbers, you’d be safer hanging out with the terrorists as long as their base is not next to water and their fire extinguishers are checked on a regular basis.

Second, the consequences are potentially cataclysmic, so we have to bend our efforts to preventing them, rather than picking up the damage afterwards.

Having started out by asserting that ‘risk’ is the unacknowledged factor that explains why people are wrong not to accept Blair’s (and now Brown’s) use of terrorism to justify curbing civil liberties, Giddens is now abandoning that argument in favour of a appeal to consequences – even if the risk is so small that we can’t actually calculate what it is (which is untrue as demonstrated above) the consequences of a terrorist attack are likely to be so overwhelmingly terrible as to override all other considerations.

Thing is when Giddens states that the “consequences are potentially cataclysmic’ what he’s doing is expressing a probability and, therefore, a measurement of risk, albeit one he declines to assess at this point.

The risk of dying is a terrorist attack and of dying in a ‘cataclysmic’ terrorist attack are not the same, because as well as factoring for the probability of being caught up in terrorist attack one also has to factor in the probably of such an attack being of ‘cataclysmic’ proportions.

How big does an such an attack have to be to be considered ‘cataclysmic’? 10 deaths? 50 deaths? 500 deaths? 3-4000 deaths? Millions? Who knows – a cataclysm is defined simply as a violent upheaval, with the qualifier that it also results in great loss or misfortune – but nothing in that gives us any clues as to the precise scale that an event must reach to qualify as a cataclysm not even, necessarily, what kind(s) of loss or misfortune one should take into account. Does cataclysmic apply only to deaths or do financial losses and misfortunes count as well? The fact is that even if, say, the authorities had had enough warning of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre to clear the towers, with the result that there we no casualties, the financial costs of the attack, both in terms of the destruction of the towers and the disruption to world financial markets would have been much the same – so would that scenario have made the attack more or less cataclysmic than that which actually happened?

Probably less, in most people’s estimation, because of the emotional value we place on human life and human ‘stories’ – the 9/11 attacks would have provided been much less compelling television if it was only the buildings at stake – which leads us to Giddens next point.

Third, how we respond to the risk – how seriously we take it – affects the very nature of that risk.

This is where Giddens starts to really get tricky in his arguments.

For example, the risk posed by avian flu to world health is serious. Some 20 million people were killed in the outbreak of avian flu in 1918-19. Conscious of its lethal implications, nations and health agencies have devoted large-scale resources to trying to limit its spread, and to minimise the possibility that it could jump from animals to humans.

Actually the risk posed by ‘avian flu’ to world health is nothing like as serious as Giddens is trying to make out. Avian influenza is not a singular disease but an entire genus (or species, if you prefer) of influenza virus, which is hosted by and endemic in birds, within which there are numerous subtypes and strains, relatively few of which are capable of crossing the species divide to humans and fewer still likely to result in the development of a pandemic strain such as that of 1918-19. The H5N1 subtype, which has spawned recent concerns about a possible pandemic is not the same subtype as that which caused the 1918/19 pandemic (that was the H2N2 subtype) merely the most likely candidate for crossing the species divide as a virulent strain at the present time – yes, more probabilities.

We don’t know if such precautions will be successful, but let’s suppose (and hope) that they are, and that avian flu does not affect humans on a widespread basis. The result is likely to be that many people will say: “It’s like Sars a few years ago – you were scaring us unnecessarily. Look: nothing has happened!”

Giddens is making a blatantly false comparison here. We can comfortable evaluate the success of efforts to manage the Sars virus and limit its spread precisely because that virus ceased to be merely a risk and became an actual threat which required intervention. The Sars virus affects and is transmissible between humans.

This is not yet the case with H5N1. It can, and has, crossed the species divide into humans is very specific circumstances and shown its potential to become a pandemic strain, but as yet it has not mutated in such a way as would enable it to spread from human to human – one is only presently at risk if one works in close proximity to birds and, especially, to large amounts of bird faeces. H5N1, therefore, remains only a potential risk – a candidate for a pandemic strain that may, or may not deliver on its potential threat to humans not just because of our efforts to limit its capabilities but simply because there is the possibility that it may not mutate in such a way as to become a human transmissible strain.

We cannot, therefore, quantify the success of existing intervention to prevent the spread of H5N1 because we no way of knowing whether or not those intervention make the slightest bit of difference.

A risk is a risk – by definition, it is not even close to being an inevitability. The risks from Sars and now avian flu, however, were – and are – very real.

But, as I’ve just explained, the risks from Sars and H5N1 may be real, but they are far from being the same – the risks associated with the spreads of Sars are considerably higher than those of H5N1 ‘avian flu’ precisely because the Sars virus is habituated to and can be transmitted between humans, neither of which is true, at the present time of H5N1.

To say simply that a risk is a risk is an entirely meaningless statement unless one can quantify the risk. The risk of dying in a car accident in the US in anyone year is 1 in 6500, the risk of being killed by an asteroid strike is estimated at 1 in 200,000 or more – both are risks but they’re not the same risk and how one responds to each will be, and should be, very different.

And the same is true of international terrorism.

Only if one completely ignores the importance of quantifying risks in order for them to have any meaning.

Some of those who hold that the government is bent on undermining civil liberties doubt that such is the case.

But its not the fucking case.

No one doubts that there is a ‘risk’ arising from international terrorism. What we do consider is that this risk is insufficiently great to justify the wholesale abridgement of civil liberties in the name of security.

Risk is not an ‘unacknowledged factor’ in any of this – Giddens is merely making the false claim that civil libertarians do not account for the risks of a terrorist attack in order to try an undermine their arguments by spreading the false view that their opposition to further legislative curbs on civil liberties is predicted purely on ideology and not any rational considerations.

It is complete fiction to suggest that risk plays no part in the view of civil libertarians. What Giddens’ is doing here is seeking to exploit public ignorance of how risks are assessed and calculated, and the public tendency to significantly overestimate certain kinds of risk to suggest that the civil libertarians’ opposition to illiberal legislation has no basis in a rational evaluation of the realities of the current situation.

They might argue that we have faced the threat of terrorism before, in the shape of the IRA, so why is it necessary to take special precautions now? Or they might claim that al-Qaida and other such organisations are really very limited in their capabilities, the dangers they pose to us here in Britain exaggerated for political purposes. Or they may use a Sars-type argument – it is now six years on from 9/11 and there has been no other incident on a comparable scale.

Or they may argue that the risk posed by international terrorism is insufficient to justify curbing civil liberties to the extent sought by government and that there are parallel risks arising from the creatio, by government, of the machinery of a police state that raise equal, if not greater concerns, than the risks of international terrorism.

It would be dangerous to be too swayed by such reasoning, not matter how well-motivated it may be.

Patronising cunt!

International terrorism is potentially far more lethal than the local terrorism of the IRA. “Traditional terrorism”, IRA- or ETA-style, is concerned with establishing states where there are stateless nations; its objective is clear and delimited, and the use of violence restricted.

Jihadist terrorists have ambitions that are, at the same time, more vague and far more encompassing; and they are willing to contemplate an altogether different scale of violence in pursuing these ends.

This is complete bullshit. Leaving aside the absurdity of suggesting that the IRA sought to establish a state where there was only a stateless nation – Giddens has clearly not looked at a map for some time and, therefore, missed the bit marked ‘Eire’ – its simply untrue to suggest that ‘Jihadist’ terrorist lack clearly defined political aims or that their goals are somehow vague and ‘far more encompassing’.

Al Qaeda’s political objective, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, was, and still is, the removal from power of the House of Saud, the origins of which stem from Saudi Arabia’s support for the international coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the first Gulf War rather than Osama Bin Laden’s preferred solution, that of retaking Kuwait using his Mujahideen forces – and every action undertaken by Al Qaeda since this dispute has proceeded from this primary objective.

There is nothing vague about Al Qaeda’s political motives, its methodology – its use of spectacular acts of revolutionary terrorism comes straight from Bakunin via Qutb – or its use of theological rhetoric as propaganda to manipulate its followers. Al Qaeda is not some insensate, irrational bogeyman, its a cellular terrorist network run on the basis of its leaders having received the very best training the CIA could provide during the period of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda operates international because its primary strategy is to target those Western nations whose support ensures the continuation of the existing Saudi regime in the hope that it can make that support so costly as to cause America, and others, to back off, leaving the House of Saud isolated and ripe for overthrow.

There is nothing incomprehensible about Al Qaeda’s motives at all, if one merely take the time to look past both its own propaganda and the way that Western governments buy into that propaganda and recycle it to justify their own actions.

We should remember that, in a worst-case scenario, 50,000 people could have died in 9/11, rather than the 3,400 who actually did. And if it hadn’t been for the bravery of the passengers on American Airlines flight 93, that plane might have destroyed either the White House or the Capitol building.

But in neither case did the worst case scenario come to fruition – 50,000 people did not die in the 9/11 attacks and the figure itself is based on the unrealistic proposition of an attack that could wipe out both towers and everyone working in them in one fell swoop. By the same token, citing the possibility that AA flight 93 might have destroyed either the White House or Capitol Building were it not for the actions of its passengers, tells us precisely nothing about the possible human costs of such an attack or even whether such an attack might have been successful. Its impossible to know with any certainty whether that flight would have reached its target without being shot down to US Air Defences had its passengers not acted as they did, or if it did reach its target what the casualty figures might have been – the most one can say with any measure of certainty is that had the passengers not acted, Washington might have been rather poorer in terms of its architectural heritage.

International terrorism (like avian flu) is a “low probability/high consequence” threat.

Low probability, yes but not ‘high consequence’ – that depends entirely on the nature of target of an attack and the means by which that attack is carried out. The assassination of a political leader or public figure is a terrorist act but hardly one that is necessarily high consequence in terms of the cost in human life is carried out by a sniper rather than using an explosive device.

Hopefully, the possibility that there will be a large-scale terrorist attack in the UK is small – especially if we take intensive measures to guard against it. However, the consequences, if one did occur, could be devastating. A dirty bomb – a small-scale weapon – exploded in the centre of London would not kill many people directly, but it could cause mass panic, have long-term health implications and render an area temporarily uninhabitable. We cannot afford for such an event to happen even once.

But what are the actual risks of such an attack?

What evidence is there to suggest that terrorists may possess both the knowledge and material to construct a ‘dirty bomb’?

What are the risks of such an attack? Are they roughly the same as those of dying in a car accident? Or drowning? Or being struck by lightning. Or winning the lottery?

Giddens doesn’t say because the scenario he puts forward – a dirty bomb – would have such terrible consequences that ‘we cannot afford for such an event to happen even once’ – the risk of such an event becoming a reality is completely immaterial as anything other than a zero risk is unacceptable, negating the value of his entire argument about risks and risk management.

His entire argument about risk is intellectually bankrupt because, when all else fails, he simply postulates a scenario in which he contends that no risk whatsoever would acceptable as means of automatically gainsaying any attempt to mount a rational challenge to his arguments

However strong al-Qaida might or might not be – students in the field disagree – international terrorism is what its name says. Terrorist attacks in the UK might be planned and organised many miles away from this country itself; those who seek to carry them out may be part of encompassing networks. It is obvious that investigating them with a view to preventing terrorism is going to be more time-consuming and difficult than in most cases of home-grown crime.

Ignoring the obvious non-sequiteur – Al Qaeda’s capabilities are irrelevant because international terrorism is, well, international – there is actually nothing new or unusual in terrorist attacks being planned overseas (WTF does Giddens thing there is between the UK and Ireland? Raspberry Jelly.) or their being carried out by cellular networks. What makes Al Qaeda rather different from some past terrorist groups is that its use of traditional Islamic familial structures as part of its cellular structure makes it difficult to infiltrate and/or obtain human intelligence for informers and that its use of theologically-derived propaganda to motivate is followers and supporters can increase the risk of attacks coming from under the radar of the police and security services from individuals who are personally motivated by the message without having any clear connections to an actual cell or network. In simple terms, Al Qaeda’s has used propaganda and media coverage to establish a media ‘signature’ that can be easily and readily emulated by individuals and small groups who are, otherwise, no more than copycats who’ve bought into Al Qaeda’s propaganda message.

One could argue that introduces and heighten element of unpredictability that enhances the arguments of those, like Giddens, who unquestioningly support further restrictions on civil liberties in the name of security but that ignore the question of risk. When one comes to assign risk to attacks of that kind, that they stem from an unexpected and possibly unpredictable source has little or no bearing on the probability of such an attack (or of finding oneself at risk from such an attack) but it does have a considerable effect on how we assess such an attacks’ potential consequences. There is little or no possibility of such an attack coming anywhere close to the ‘dirty bomb’ worst-case scenario as copycat ‘cells’ of this kind lack the knowledge to construct such a ‘dirty bomb’ and, certainly, the resources and contacts needed to acquire the material necessary to construct such a device. The nearest such a cell might get to constructing a dirty bomb would be if they chicken shit mixed up in its fertiliser base.

A responsible government cannot maintain a classic civil liberties position in this area, any more than it can in respect of the wearing of seatbelts, acceptance of speed limits on the roads, restrictions on public smoking, or conducting searches of passengers checking in to board planes.

What is a ‘classic’ civil liberties position? If you’re going to argue for limitations on civil liberties and try an justify them in rational terms then you should at least have the courtesy to define that nature of that position and what it entails. Giddens does none of this, because as soon as one does define what one is talking about one has a basis on which to weigh up the costs and risks associated with deviating from such a position and, more importantly, by giving precise names to these liberties – habeas corpus, freedom of movement, freedom of expression – one makes the public aware of precisely what it is that at stake.

What Gordon Brown is proposing seems to me a decent balance: to recognise the changed security situation, but at the same time to ensure maximum accountability and provide for regular public monitoring of what is likely to be an evolving problem.

But, remember, Giddens is not arguing from a balanced position. Rather he’s chosen to gainsay all possible opposition by citing the ‘dirty bomb’ scenario in which no amount risk is permissible and, therefore, by extension no limitation on civil liberties cannot be justified. The argument from consequences overrides, in Giddens’ view all considerations of risk, especially those that acknowledge the very low probability of finding oneself caught up in an actual terrorist attack.

His suggested measures include an extension of the 28-day limit on detention without charge, making terrorism an aggravating factor in sentencing, as is already the case in racially-motivated crime, and considering whether phone-tap evidence can be used in court. There will be a judicial review of detention every week and an annual report to Parliament on the use of the powers.

Only now, in the parameters of his support for Brown do we finally see what Giddens means by a ‘classic’ civil liberties position.

Extension of detention without charge, i.e. goodbye habeas corpus.

Terrorism an aggravating factor in sentencing? Sentencing for what exactly? Given the ever growing canon of terrorism-related offences one has to wonder exactly what the scope is for using terrorism as an aggravating factor in other offences, and what offences this will apply to? Are we to see judges solemnly intoning that they would have sent someone down for six months for benefit fraud but for the evidence of their having watched a Bin Laden video on Al-Jazeera, which ups the ante to 10 years in Belmarsh?

And as for using phone-tap evidence in court. The reason why that has widespread support amongst even ardent civil libertarians is that, used correctly, it could and should remove any necessity for using extended periods of detention without charge – or has the government forgotten that conspiracy to commit a criminal offence is, itself, an offence – I’m guessing that this is also one area where the ‘aggravating factor’ line will come into play.

Judicial reviews of detention once a week sounds good on paper but, in practice, one cannot judge such a suggest without knowing the criteria under which judges will be asked to decide whether or not someone should continue to be detained – nor, one suspects, will we find out as such proceedings are likely to be conducted in-camera.

And as for an annual report to Parliament, is that really any substitute or compensation for the single biggest alteration in the government’s approach to security over the last ten years, that of placing anti-terrorism legislation on permanently on the statute books rather than requiring annual renewal by Parliament as was previously the case with the Prevention of Terrorism Act that saw Britain through the’IRA-era’.

If Gordon Brown wants to make one clear statement in support of a proper balance of security and civil liberties it would be to ensure that those elements of both the existing and proposed framework of anti-terrorism legislation that do not relate specifically to prosecutions, conviction and sentencing for defined criminal offences – e.g. extended detention periods, are made subject to a annually renewable sunset clause such that they may be speedily dropped from statute should then become unnecessary or unjustifiable in future.

It is crucial that these provisions are applied in a rigorous way, but here, as elsewhere, as prime minister in waiting Brown has made a good beginning.

A good beginning to what, exactly? No, don’t answer that… I’ll only end up calling you a cunt.

Oh, Columbo moment… (just one more thing)

As we’ve been discussing risk, this article by Bruce Schneer on the difference between perceived and actual risk and the reasons why the public often dramatically overestimate certain risks – which is actually what Giddens is relying on to support his argument in this piece – is well worth reading as an adjunct to Giddens’ piss poor arguments.

7 thoughts on “Giddens Unspun

  1. Good stuff as ever.

    What Giddens doesn’t say, but I think lies behind these calculations, is that the political fallout for a centre-left government of a terrorist attack taking place is lethal.

    If a terrorist attack takes place, people will quickly ask whether it could have been prevented. If it gets to be widely believed that the government ignored the threat, or failed to bring in laws which could have stopped the terrorists, then that is game over end of government.

    Going on and on about being tough on terrorism and legislating to restrict civil liberties is a way of trying to minimise this risk – out of a mixture of a belief that doing this will genuinely reduce the risk of a terrorist attack and also that if one takes place, they can say that they had been trying to do all they could to stop the terrorists, but were prevented by the Labour Left/the House of Lords/the Liberal Democrats/David Cameron/Shami Chakrabati/whoever.

    As an example, the political consequences for Labour of the London bombings would have been much greater if the Tories had been arguing loudly for years that we needed to extend detention without trial to stop terrorists, and Labour had been refusing to do so, or to pass any new anti-terror legislation on the grounds that the risk didn’t justify the reduction in people’s liberties.

    This isn’t a justification of any of the government’s recent legislation, but it is impossible to explain why they have been making it such a priority with such apparently weak arguments without the political dimension.

    None of which alters the point that Anthony Giddens is a first grade idiot, mind.

  2. I know a place where terrorist attacks are sufficiently frequent to come up with some firm stats about risk – Iraq. It also has the benefit of a clearly defined starting point to provide a measure of control. Trouble is that when stats boffins come up with peer reviewed data on body counts arising from actual events the likes of Giddens don’t want to know.

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  4. don, you should have a look at John Mueller’s article on the “terrorism and the dynamics of threat escalation”:

    http://psweb.sbs.ohio-state.edu/faculty/jmueller/ISA2005.PDF

    Unity, great work (although it took me 2 goes to read the whole thing through).

    About the twin towers worst case scenario thing – another point is that rather than being surprising that it was as few as 3000 when it could have been 50,000 – the surprising thing is that it was as many as it was! Assuming it was genuine, on that video of bin Laden that was released shortly afterwards he said that they hadn’t expected the buildings to be totally demolished only the floors above where the planes crashed at best.

    Giddens’ mistake here is to think that ‘things changed’ in 2001 and on that basis the lack of any terrorist attacks on the same scale subsequently looks like a freak occurrence which surely can’t last, whereas in fact the 2001 attacks were the freak occurrence and the lack of such large scale attacks subsequently is things going back to normal.

  5. Blair has produced very few innovations. Most of his ideas are Thatcher-lite. The only thing innovative about them has been that a Labour PM has been proposing them. And just because something is innovative doesn’t mean that it will work or that it serves the intended purpose or that it doesn’t produce unintended consequences.

    There’s nothing innovative about locking people up without trial: Heath did it in Northern Ireland in 1970 with disasterous results. And there’s no evidence that its benefits outweigh its risks.

  6. Isn’t it meant to be “tough new powers”, not “tough new laws”? Perhaps Giddens is out of the loop.

    I agree with the Don. People expect less and less of their governments, but there remains a deep-rooted belief that very high up the list of a government’s priorities should be protecting national security from ANY breach, however small – and that government is the only agency capable of co-ordinating this.

    People don’t think that the government should protect them when they’re crossing the road; most people treat that as their own responsibility. But no-one proposes that individuals should take out terrorist insurance, or co-ordinate their own protection against terrorist attacks.

    So it’s not a question of risk, or consequences. It’s a question of whether or not the government is competent at doing what people expect it to do. Can it do – and is it being seen to do – the basic things that people expect as the least a government ought to be doing. If it doesn’t – or is seen not to be doing –

    Where does this leave me? Agreeing with the government’s approach? No. But it suggests the normal lefty approach to this issue is wrong, because it ignores the things most people see as important.

    If the left wants to win the argument on this we need to stop arguing that detention without trial etc impinges on civil liberties and start arguing that it doesn’t make people safer, and that we have alternatives that do. For example, an argument that’s underused is the argument that control orders, raids based on little intelligence, detention without trial & increased stop and search powers have no effect on our ability to stop terorism, and the only thing that counts is more and better intelligence, which they prevent by isolating the communities that could provide them.

    The argument “x is safer than y” beats the argument that “y is safer than x but x protects the civil liberties of suspected terrorists” every time.

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